Isolation is no longer a word; it has become a way of life. For many of us, isolation can be a blessing. We are forced to spend more time than usual with our children and spouses, and we can make it a positive memorable experience. But there are those of us who need the social outlet and the support of others. For them, isolation can feel like imprisonment.
Last week I called a friend in Australia whose mother had passed away from COVID-19. I offered my condolences over the phone and he replied that this is a terrible time. Not only could he not attend the funeral, he also couldn’t sit shivah properly or say kaddish. This was relatively early in the Corona curve and I did not catch on right away. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t sit a proper shivah or say kaddish.
Someone told me that he must have been referring to sitting shivah in isolation. For the first time, I realized how heavy a burden isolation can be. The virus has caused thousands of deaths around the world and the Jewish community has been battered as well. There are hundreds of people sitting shivah during this period and they are all alone. No one comes to visit the shivah house and they cannot recite the memorial prayer because the minimum quorum of ten men—a minyan, is unable to gather. Mourners are left all alone at a time when we are most dependent on the support and comfort of others.
Of course, we have sought creative solutions and have taken to video conferencing in lieu of actual visitation. But though this is better than nothing, it doesn’t remove the oppressive sense of isolation that overcomes us when we set down the laptop lid. This is the true imprisonment of isolation.
A Time of Freedom
All this makes it difficult to understand the motif of Passover, the upcoming Jewish festival that celebrates freedom. We are taught that Passover doesn’t only celebrate our ancestors’ liberation from bondage 3332 years ago. It celebrates that once liberated, we became and remain a free people.
Are we truly free today? When a grandmother will shut down her zoom link with her family because the sun has set and Passover has begun, and turns to her empty table to ask herself the four questions and conduct her lonely seder, is she truly free? When my cousin says goodbye to her friends on the phone and looks about the empty shivah home, is she truly free? When the grandchildren who have practiced for months to sing songs and perform plays in front of their grandfather at the Seder, are now unable to join him, are they truly free? How can we sit up and say honestly that we are celebrating freedom and liberation on this night?
It would make sense if we were celebrating a past event that had since been canceled. But if Passover were only about an ancient exodus, we would have stopped celebrating it long ago. Perhaps when our two Temples had been destroyed. If not, then perhaps during the crusades, the inquisition, the pogroms, communism, or the Holocaust. If Passover were only about past freedoms that have since been erased, we would have given up on it long ago.
Yet, throughout our history, in times good and bad, we always celebrated Passover. Not because it is nice to indulge in delightful reminiscence, but because Passover granted us inherent freedom. We were not just freed from bondage on Passover, we became a free people. We became a people that is always and intrinsically free irrespective of circumstance.
Yet if that is true, how is it that we are held captive today in the oppressive prison of isolation?
Reb Mendel Futerfas was an elderly Chasid imprisoned and sent to a Gulag in the Soviet Union. Reb Mendel was a sight to behold. A long beard, sparkling eyes, and always in good humor. His fellow prisoners couldn’t understand how he could be so happy under the oppressive regime.
Reb Mendel explained. You define your purpose in life around your career, your family, your interests, etc. Here in the Gulag, where you are deprived of your family and your ability to pursue your interests, you are deprived of your standing and your entire purpose. What is left for you to be happy about? You have become a shell of your former self and all that is left is despair.
I, on the other hand, define my purpose around serving G-d. G-d, unlike my family and my interests, did not leave me behind when I boarded the train to the Gulag. G-d came with me. I can serve Him here just like I can serve Him at home. I can be filled with purpose here, just as easily as I can be filled with purpose at home. Of course, I miss my family, community, interests, and everything else, but I have my purpose, and thus I can be happy.
Only Our Bodies
When we say that Jews are inherently free, we mean that no one can own our souls. Only our bodies are subject to imprisonment, not our souls. Only our bodies are subject to isolation, not our souls. Our souls were not sent to exile, our souls have remained free; liberated as on the day we were freed from Egypt.
No one has the power to take our freedom. Viktor Frankel, founder of Logotherapy and author of Man’s Search for Meeting, was taken prisoner during the Holocaust in the Nazi death camps. While there, he heard people say that if they were ever freed, their lives would have meaning. He realized that the opposite was true. If their lives would have meaning, they would be free.
This helped him build an entire therapeutic approach on the idea that we can work our way through any confinement, isolation, suffering, or oppression without losing our inherent freedom. He famously wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
We don’t need to surrender to the confinement of the body and the isolation of circumstance. When G-d took us out of Egypt, He granted us freedom from every form of affliction including isolation. Throughout Jewish history, Jews have survived terrible oppressions by losing themselves in Torah study and forgetting their surroundings.
The Baal Shem Tov once said that we are where our thoughts are. If we choose to dwell on the negative, we will be in isolation this Passover at the Seder. If we choose to dwell on the Exodus, delve into the texts and their derivations, apply their messages and meanings, and seek their relevance and application, we won’t be in isolation. We will soar above the roof, we will travel beyond the walls, and we will all be together. With the sages of Benei Brak, with Rabban Gamliel and with Moses, at the red sea and at the gates of Egypt, and with every other Jew celebrating the Seder in the privacy of their home.
We might each be in our homes, but we are by no means alone. If we choose to see life through the lens of our body, we will be alone. If we choose the lens of the soul, we will be together with the souls of every other Jew on this holy and liberating night.
Reb Mendel once met his friend Reb Michel in prison and asked him if he was happy. When Reb Michel replied, how can I be happy in this terrible place, Reb Mendel said, they took our bodies, but if we surrender our happiness, we will have given them our souls. We can hold onto our souls. We can hold onto our happiness. We can hold on to Freedom. This is the liberating message of Passover.
Not even in a year of isolation, but especially in a year of isolation.